Intergenerational transmission of knowledge and extinction…

Well, Day 2 of the Conference is almost over and I have already got screeds of notes. Unfortunately, most are illegible, as I seem to have lost the knack of speed writing, or indeed of any writing at all, now that the keyboard has supplanted the pen in my daily life… So this summary relies mostly on my memory – if you attended the Conference, please do let me know if I have got something wrong!

The first session I attended was the keynote speech by father-and-daughter duo, Sir Tipene and Hana O’Regan.  The focus of their session was the intergenerational transmission of knowledge within Ngai Tahu.  Not surprisingly, father and daughter exemplified the different ways in which knowledge is acquired by different generations, with Sir Tipene favouring the written word, while Hana “waits for the video”.  However, regardless of these differences, both emphasised that the transmission of knowledge entails the inherent selection of knowledge, and therefore the withering of the knowledge that has not made the cut.  As the famous quote says, “history  is written by the winners”, or, in Sir Tipene’s version, “history always forgets the losers”.

So the coming of the potato to Aotearoa led not only to the vanishing of the fern root as a common source of food, but also to the disappearance of songs, poetry and knowledge about its cultivation, preparation, etc.  Similarly the axe took over the pounamu adze, and as Christianity and pork meat became popular, kai takata (cannibalism) vanished, and with it an important part of Ngai Tahu culture (Sir Tipene clearly enjoyed making repeated reference to kai takata, tongue no doubt firmly in cheek).

Much of the session then outlined the priorities and issues that dominated the last 300 years or so of Ngai Tahu history.  There was much to absorb here, but one snippet of information that impressed itself on me was the fact that the whole of pre-European Ngai Tahu history is preserved in written form in only a dozen or so manuscripts, and that half of those are heavily based on the other.

As a language junkie, it was the following statistics, taken from When Languages Die by K. David Harrison (2007), which however most shocked me:

  • In 2001 there were 6912 distinct languages in the world
  • By 2101 only about half of those are likely to still be in existence
  • 47% of languages are under threat. By comparison, “only” 11% of birds, 18% of mammals, 5% of plants  and %8 of plants are in the same position.

Is there hope for Te Reo?  Hana O’Regan is obviously very concerned about this, and with reason: only some 5% of Ngai Tahu are fluent speakers of Te Reo, and almost all are second language learners of Maori, with only 15-20 families currently raising their children in Te Reo at home.  And the language that is being learnt has been sanitised – not surprisingly, few modern parents choose to follow in their predecessors’ footsteps by singing lullabies to their babies describing wars and acts of revenge. 

So where to for us as librarians? I guess that for me, this reinforces the importance of the role that the library can play not only in preserving Maori materials, but also and especially in encouraging the use of Te Reo within our walls, so that this knowledge may be available for the generations to come.  Sir Tipene and Hana O’Regan used Te Whare Mahara (The House of Memories) as a metaphor of the importance of “acknowledging the past, embracing the present and advancing the future”.   I can’t think of many better descriptions of the role of the libraries… What do you think? How can we help preserve Te Reo?

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